The Difference between Academic Copyediting and Proofreading

Copyediting and proofreading are often confused by academic writers. Which service do you need for your research paper, journal article, or book?
A stack of folded white publisher's proofs that forms an abstract, biomorphic composition.

Academic writers often confuse copyediting and proofreading. And with little wonder. Many of us are so focused on the research and writing process that we overlook what happens after the draft of our research paper, dissertation, journal article, or book manuscript is complete.

Although the words “copyediting” and “proofreading” are often used interchangeably, there are distinct differences between them that you should know before you engage an editor. This post will help you determine what kind of editing service you need for your academic writing.

What is copyediting?

After you’ve received feedback on your draft and you’re confident that your manuscript is ready to submit, you’re ready for a copyedit. This stage of academic editing is generally performed after an author has perfected their argument, organization, and sometimes even after they’ve gone through a peer review process. Copyeditors help you clean up your text so that it’s ready to be sent to the publisher.

Copyediting generally involves grammar, mechanics, punctuation, and the application of a style guide, like APA or the Chicago Manual of Style (and/or your publisher’s style guide). With your content and argument established, the editor will revise your manuscript so that your ideas shine!

This type of service includes some or all of the following:

  • Fixing grammar and spelling mistakes
  • Improving clarity and flow of sentences
  • Correcting punctuation
  • Correcting or formatting citations
  • Document formatting (at the section, chapter, and book levels)
  • Improving word choice
  • Ensuring consistency (at the word and manuscript level)
  • Eliminating repetition
  • Glaring issues with argumentation, content, or evidence (see developmental services above for specific help with this!)

Copyediting should be performed on a Microsoft Word document, since the editor will need the ability to work with the text itself using the track changes and comments functions. (Copyeditors prefer Word to GoogleDocs because we like to toggle between different ways of viewing the changes we implement, which GoogleDocs doesn’t do so easily.) 

While many ESL authors benefit from copyediting, it can be useful for other kinds of academic writers as well. We can all benefit from a second pair of eyes on our texts, and not everyone has collegial colleagues. Even editors hire other editors to work on their writing!

Some journals or publishers hire their own copyeditors, but oftentimes it’s the author’s responsibility to hire outside freelance editors. It is an additional investment, but on the plus side, since freelancers work for you and not the publisher, you’ll have complete control over the process.

When you hire your own editor, you can also ensure that your editor has the necessary skills, experience, and training to edit your work rather than relying on outsourced editors usually provided by publishers. (You can check out our team, all of whom have certificates in editing from top programs!)

When your copyedit is complete, you can expect to receive a document with lots of tracked changes and some questions (what we call “queries”) for you in the margin. You can now have full confidence when you upload your document into the EMS or send it to your advisor!

What is proofreading?

Once a text has been copyedited, it will then be ready to proofread—but not before it’s been sent to the publisher! Proofreading is the last stage in the editing process and is often contracted directly by the publisher.

Proofreading is only performed on texts that have been designed and laid out by a graphic designer and/or typesetter into what is known as a “proof.” Proofs are generally PDF files that look like the book or article before it’s been printed in a journal or book format.

Proofreaders are tasked with looking over your proof to find all of the tiny inconsistencies and grammatical errors that have escaped the author, copyeditor, and other reviewers. They have eagle eyes to see things that ordinary humans don’t: 

  • Homonyms (compliment/complement, bare/bear)
  • Common misspellings that aren’t caught by spell checkers (pubic vs. public) 
  • Incorrect punctuation (like a hyphen where an en dash should appear)
  • Stray or missing spaces between words and paragraphs
  • Layout and typesetting issues like line and word breaks, widows and orphans
  • Illustration placement and caption consistency
  • Running headers in chapters
  • Checking the chapter titles to the table of contents

Proofreaders do read your body text, but unlike a copyeditor, if they read a sentence that’s awkward but grammatically correct, they will leave it alone. They are not tasked with improving your voice or the tone of your writing.

Importantly, you should know that every change a proofreader makes costs money, since designers generally charge by the number of changes rather than the hour at this point in the editorial process.

When you receive your proofread back from your editor, you can expect to find changes marked in your PDF using Adobe’s Comments features. These can often be difficult to see, so it can be useful to open this tool in a sidebar to see all of their changes. 

Flatpage offers both academic copyediting and proofreading services. With us, you can be confident that your work will be ready to present to the world!

About the author

Cara Jordan is chief editor and president at Flatpage. She has spent her career editing academic and artists' writings, primarily as a developmental editor and copyeditor. She received her PhD in art history from the Graduate Center, CUNY.


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